If your hamsters are like mine, forage mix is a big hit!
In this blog I explain how you can make your own. Of course, you can buy pre-made bags from the pet shop, but if you want a mix without the plastic bag and knowing exactly what is in it, read on.
Step One: Deciding what to add
There are so many options it can be overwhelming. Rather than making a list and hunting down all the things on it, I found it easier to see what was available to me, and adapted my plans to that. Have a look around your garden, local area or even kitchen cupboards to see what you have that could go into your mix.
I’ve listed some suggestions below, but this list is not an exhaustive list of what is hamster-safe.
Herbs: basil, coriander, dill, mint, parsley, sage, thyme
Vegetable/Fruit: beetroot (leaf/root), carrot, courgette, cucumber, kale, spinach, strawberry (leaf/fruit), swiss chard, watercress,
Greens: alfalfa, clover, grass, nettle leaves, ribwort plantain, wheatgrass
Flowers: calendula flower, chamomile flower, cornflower, daisy, dandelion (flower/ leaf/ root), nasturtium, rose petals
Cupboard: mealworms, bird seed (avoid those with suet pellets), popcorn (this blog has how to make hamster popcorn)
The real plus of making your own mix is that you can adjust it according to your hamster’s needs. For example, if you have a diabetes-susceptible hamster species, avoid sweet treats like strawberry fruit.
Step Two: Harvesting/Foraging
Now the fun part starts! You can either harvest your chosen plants from your garden or go foraging yourself. Make sure that, wherever you are harvesting, that you follow the below rules:
- avoid plants growing in areas with potential contaminants. This includes roadsides with traffic pollution, places with soiling by other animals, and plants that may have been treated with chemicals that are not safe for consumption (such as pesticides or even fertiliser not intended for edible plants).
- get permission to harvest. Make sure that you are allowed to harvest in the area you choose and from the plant you have selected. Your neighbour or family member may have allowed you to come pick their dandelions, but would look less kindly on you also taking all the blooms off their prize roses!
- be certain of what you are harvesting. If you’re not 100% sure that the plant is what you think it is, then choose something else!
- respect your environment. Especially important when foraging, only take what you need. Ensure that the plants are left in good enough condition to survive and to feed/shelter wildlife.
I recommend using a sharp pair of scissors, garden snips or secateurs to cut the flowers or leaves cleanly. I love having a peaceful little wander to the wild areas nearby with my snips and my gathering bag early in the morning before anyone else is awake.
For foraging nettles, a thick pair of gardening gloves is needed. Try to harvest the younger nettle shoots and avoid when the plant is flowering.
Step Three: Drying
You have your chosen mix ingredients, now comes the drying. Make sure the plants are clean and washed before starting this next step.
The easiest option is to air dry. This involves minimal equipment and no electricity/gas but does take longer. The simplest way to air dry is to tie your plants into small bunches with string and hang them in a cool dry place. A pantry or understairs cupboard is ideal. Make sure your bunches are not too thick or the central plants may not dry properly. You can also use drying racks, either ones you have bought or cooling racks from the kitchen cupboard. Spread the plants in thin layers on these and leave in a dry place (or in heatwaves / hot dry summers outside!) The drying can take several weeks so be patient. If you are impatient like I was at the start all you hard work is wasted when your partly-dried plants go mouldy in their storage jars. Air drying isn’t as good for moisture-rich fruits or vegetables as they are likely to go mouldy first.
If you want your drying faster, you can spread the plants in thin layers onto baking trays and oven dry them. Personally I haven’t had much luck with this as I tend to burn them! The oven should be on a low heat setting (150F or lower) with the oven door open for 2-4 hours. This is a good option for moisture-rich fruit and veg.
The last option is to use a dehydrator. I’ve recently acquired a dehydrator and am loving the ability to dry courgette quickly. If I only have a couple of trays of veg to dry, I top up the other trays with herbs from the garden that I would otherwise have air-dried to not waste the energy.
Step Four: Putting it all together
When all your plant material is thoroughly dried, you can put your forage mix together.
Take leaves off stems and discard any sharp bits. Sometimes I’ve found grasses turned out more straw-like than hay-like after drying so I used what I could but couldn’t use the rest. Where you can, put your rejected plant parts in the composter or garden waste bin so they are reused. Some leaves, like nettle or grasses, are better crushed or cut into smaller pieces. You may prefer to leave some whole. This is the point you would add the bird seed, popcorn or mealworms if you are using them.
Store the mix in an air-tight jar or box.
Feed the forage mix as a treat, starting with smaller amounts to make sure it suits your hamster. Remember it is not a main food mix so shouldn’t be fed in large quantities. For ideas on making meals fun, check out this post.
This post is one in the ‘Grow Your Own for Hamsters’ series. The posts in this series are:
Gardening for Hamsters (to be published)